Charity leaders facing ‘unfair personal scrutiny’, says regulator chief

24 Apr 2024 News

The Charity Commission’s outgoing chief executive Helen Stephenson has said that sector leaders are coming under “disproportionately intense, unpleasant, and sometimes unfair personal scrutiny” in a speech today.

Speaking at Civil Society Media’s Trustee Exchange, Helen Stephenson warned that public debate on social issues in the UK “has become too charged, polarised, and often simply nasty”.

Stephenson said that while charity leaders should be critiqued for their decisions, she was worried that “unrelenting scrutiny” was putting people off taking sector leadership roles.

Reflecting on her seven years as CEO, a position she is set to leave in July, Stephenson said expectations of what the regulator can do had become increasingly unrealistic.

She said the Commission would have to “work hard” to clarify and explain its limitations after her departure.

‘On trial, just for doing their job’

Stephenson voiced concern that charity leaders are facing “disproportionately intense, unpleasant, and sometimes unfair personal scrutiny – often from both within their charities, and externally”.

She said that while people may want to raise concerns and complaints via mainstream or social media, she was “worried that what charity leaders face can stretch beyond legitimate scrutiny”.

“I am now concerned that potential candidates may be put off taking on leadership of charities because they are not prepared to bear their lives to the harsh light of unrelenting scrutiny,” she said.

“Leading a large charity is never going to be easy. It involves overseeing complex, sensitive work supporting the most disadvantaged people in our society or operating in challenging environments around the world.

“But what is putting people off is not the work, responsibility or the relatively modest pay. It’s the sense that they are on trial, just for doing their job.”

‘Expectation creep’

Stephenson said she was also apprehensive about the Commission’s resources relative to the size of the charity sector, and “growing expectations as to the nature and extent of our oversight”.

“Over recent years, we have experienced what you might term expectation creep,” she said.

“Growing expectations that we serve not just as regulator, but as a charity ombudsman, able to offer some kind of remedy for those who feel that they have not had the service from a charity that they might have expected.

“Or as an inspectorate that visits every charity on a regular basis, auditing its processes and impact.

“Neither of these expectations is realistic or manageable under the current framework, and this worries me.

“Over coming years, the Commission is going to have to work hard to explain its role – what it can do, and what it can’t and won’t.”

Former Commission deputy CEO David Holdsworth is set to take over from Stephenson in July.

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